Ohio Legislature Overrides DeWine's Veto On Public Health Order Bill

The Ohio Statehouse in downtown Columbus on March 26, 2020.
The Ohio Statehouse in downtown Columbus on March 26, 2020. [Ryan Hitchcock / WOSU]

Updated: 4:38 p.m., Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Ohio's Republican-dominated legislature on Wednesday voted to override Gov. Mike DeWine's veto of a bill that would allow lawmakers to overturn public health and emergency orders from the state and local health departments.

SB 22, which DeWine criticized as unconstitutional, would set a 90-day limit on states of emergency and gives the Ohio General Assembly the power to revoke those after 30 days. It would allow lawmakers to terminate any public health orders after 11 days through a resolution, which requires a simple majority vote.

The bill also would ban local health departments from shutting down schools, specific businesses or public gatherings. Those restrictions were added to the House version to stop local entities from issuing orders the state couldn’t.

“SB 22 handcuffs Ohio’s ability to confront crises,” DeWine wrote in a veto statement Tuesday. “The emergence of a yet unknown, epidemic illnesses bursting on the scene – just as COVID-19 did – remains a very real threat, as does the risk of state and non-state-sponsored terrorism.”

Less than a day after DeWine issued his veto, both the Ohio Senate and House went into session to consider an override vote, which requires a supermajority in each chamber. The Senate passed the override 23-10 while the House tally was 62-35.

Democrats in both chambers were united against overriding DeWine’s veto. During debate, several lawmakers argued that restricting the governor's ability to act decisively – and undermining the guidance of health experts and scientists – is especially ill-timed as Ohio attempts to escape the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Instead of having debates about the facts, we’re having debates about what even are facts,” state Rep. Brigid Kelly (D-Cincinnati) said.

Drawing a scolding from House Speaker Bob Cupp, Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D-Akron) criticized many of her colleagues for ignoring CDC guidance on face masks and other precautions, and argued that public health was not in their expertise.

“I can tell you that just by sitting in this room and looking at how little social distancing is occurring, looking at how few members are wearing masks, even though those are the requirements from the CDC,” Sykes said. “As you're smirking at me, not wearing a mask, you are not good at public health. This is not your lane, you need to get out of it because people are going to be harmed by this decision.”

Lakewood Democrat and state Senate Minority Whip Nickie Antonio said she believes more lives would've been lost had the bill been law last year.

 

 

“In a crisis, in an emergency, when lives are on the line, there has to be somebody able to make a decision quickly, with authority,” Antonio said Wednesday “How in the world would a group of legislators come together with all different opinions listening and believing all different information from science to make a decision in a quick fashion, dealing with an emergency?”

Critics of the bill also agreed with DeWine’s argument that SB 22 violates the separation of powers.

“This body should not be in the business of passing laws that violate the Ohio Constitution,” said state Rep. Richard Brown (D-Canal Winchester). 

Republicans defended the bill’s constitutionality, citing precedent within Ohio law and listing more than two dozen other states with similar bills on the books.

“There are over a dozen other examples of the legislature being able to overturn an action of the executive branch via concurrent resolution,” argued state Sen. Rob McColley (R-Napoleon).

McColley, who serves as the Ohio Senate’s majority whip, also said the bill wouldn’t prevent emergency decisions by the governor or state health department director.

“Every single check and balance that would be put in place would be after the fact and there's no requirement even that the legislature act or the legislature have an up or down vote on any of those,” McColley said. “There's nothing in here that is somehow paralyzing the executive branch and not allowing them to act swiftly and flexibly as, frankly, I think many of us would agree, they probably should be able to.”

The bill’s backers assert it would give constituents a voice in making important decisions.

“This law provides the General Assembly the ability to consult with the department and experts before rescinding an order,” Senate president Matt Huffman (R-Lima) wrote in a statement after the vote. “Senate Bill 22 represents a balance of power, not a battle for power.”

Local public health officials, health systems and the Ohio Hospital Association opposed the bill, along with major physicians’ and nurses’ organizations, the Ohio Mayors Alliance, the County Commissioners Association of Ohio and the state's community colleges.

Public Health Dayton and Montgomery County was one of nine agencies that held a news conference Tuesday urging lawmakers not to override DeWine's veto.

“During a public health emergency, you want people who are trained in public health managing the emergency,” said spokesman Dan Suffoletto. “Having untrained individuals making decisions during that emergency is not in the best interest of the citizens.”

In his veto message, DeWine took particular aim at the bill’s prohibition on quarantine orders for people who haven’t been “medically diagnosed,” saying that leaders need to act quickly in a health crisis. He also told lawmakers that the bill would open up Ohio, its local health departments and colleges up to lawsuits, and lead to courts making decisions on public health.

Wednesday’s vote marks the first veto override of DeWine’s governorship. It’s possible the bill will end up in court soon after.

ideastream’s Glenn Forbes contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 WOSU 89.7 NPR News. To see more, visit WOSU 89.7 NPR News.

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